There was a period of my life not so long ago when I was completely obsessed with big smallmouth bass. From about 14 years old until my early 20s, I would spend nearly every day of the summer pursuing them. My madness even led me to enter a few local bass tournaments around my family’s home near Lake Champlain. Big smallies just dominated my brain. But every summer would inevitably end. As the first leaves of autumn began to fall, I’d put my tackle away and leave my big bass ambitions unfulfilled for another season. Then, one frosty November day, I caught the largest smallmouth of my life on a bucktail jig while walleye fishing—and my whole world changed.
Smallmouth bass are typically viewed as a spring and summer fish. However, as I discovered that fateful day, bronzebacks can also be caught throughout the fall—giving many anglers a massive extension on their bass season. In fact, smallmouth fishing in the autumn can be some of the hottest bass action of the whole year.
As the water temperatures drop, the fish begin to feed frantically. Just like chubby bronze bears about to go into hibernation, the bass know winter is coming and that they must pack on the calories to survive. Smallmouth anglers who aren’t ready to call it quits can capitalize on this frenzied behavior. They just have to know where and how to find the fish.
How To Find Smallmouth Bass in Fall While you may have caught a boatload of smallies in the shade of boat docks and in shallow weed beds during the regular season, fall smallmouth are an entirely different animal. Unlike in the summer when smallmouth congregate around shallow structure waiting for food to happen by, in the fall they go in search of it. The bass move from their shallow summer locations out into open water areas. They’ll push into this deeper water, anywhere from 10 to 20 feet deep, gathering and hunting around sharp drop-offs, deep rockpiles, and off the points of islands.
Smallmouth move to these spots in search of baitfish such as shad and cisco, which by the end of summer have congregated into large schools around these areas in search of their own pre-winter feed. Finding these points of structure and these baitfish schools is absolutely vital. The bass will only be hunting and feeding in the areas where the baitfish have gathered, which leaves a lot of dead water in between.
The best way to find the structure and the baitfish schools is with electronics. Fish finders will show structure on the bottom and give clues as to what fish are present. Some fancier models will even pick up the gathered schools of baitfish and the smallmouth themselves. However, if you don’t have a boat with sonar, then the best way to find the bass is by using a bathymetric map. These maps show the underwater topographical structure and depth of lakes and reservoirs. They can be found online or through your local fish and wildlife department.
Additionally, thanks to the wonders of technology, bathymetry can also be attained through a mobile app such as Humminbird’s FishSmart or Navionics, or downloaded onto a simple GPS unit. Search the maps for shallow points of structure in the middle of the lake as well as long flats of shallow water that extend out to dramatic drop-offs. These are your points of attack. They’re places where baitfish will gather, with the smallmouth not too far behind.
The Best Lures and Equipment for Fall Smallmouth Once you’ve found out where the bass are, the next step is making sure you have the right stuff to catch them. While your heavy-action bass rods and 40-pound braided lines are great for ripping big bronze backs out of heavy structure, fall smallmouth often require a bit more finesse. You want a lightweight, medium-action rod that you can cast accurately at a distance, but is still sensitive enough to detect subtle strikes. Pair the rod with a light spinning reel strung with 6- to 10-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line and you’ll have the perfect fall smallmouth set-up.
As far as fall fishing lures go, you’ll want to think like a boy scout and be prepared. While heavily-feeding fall smallmouth will attack almost anything, their constant roving makes them unpredictable and difficult to locate. So, you’ll want to bring a large variety of lures that give you the ability to target the smallmouth wherever they are feeding in the water column.
Crankbaits are a must. The versatility and simple action of these lures allow you to cover a hell of a lot of water at a variety of depths, helping you key in on where the fish are feeding. For fall fish I prefer to use elongated crankbaits such as the Shad Rap and the Berkley Flicker Shad in colors that match whatever baitfish are present in the water I’m fishing.
Spinnerbaits are also a great option for fall smallmouth. However, those bright, flashy, double-willow blades that berserker bass absolutely smashed during the summer don’t seem to have the same effect on the more particular fall fish. Instead, fill up your tackle box with the smaller in-line spinners that you would use for trout such as the Rooster Tail and the Blue Fox Vibrax. These daintier spinners have a smaller profile and can be fished with more subtlety. They’re perfect for targeting big smallmouth looking to devour any baitfish that’s strayed from the herd.
While spinners and crankbaits are great for covering water and finding fall smallmouth, you’ll also want to bring some lures that can be fished slowly and with a bit more finesse. Jerkbaits such as the Husky Jerk and the Ripstop are a great option for this, especially when the bass are feeding in less than 10 feet of water. The lures can be worked slowly and thoroughly around feeding schools of smallmouth and can really lay into the larger and chunkier fish who are in search of any easy target.
You’ll also want to bring along some heavy jigs like the Bitsy Bug and Buck-A-Roo for when the fish are in deeper water. Finally, no smallmouth trip would feel right without a plethora of soft plastics in tow. I’ve found the Super Fluke and the Senko to be especially effective on the rare occasions when fall smallies are in a picky mood.
The Best Techniques for Catching Fall Smallmouth How you fish for fall smallmouth depends entirely on what they’re doing when you find them. Their habit of constantly roving in search of prey means that you’ll end up catching fish in different areas of the lake and at different depths almost daily. Ergo, the key to success in fall smallmouth fishing is flexibility and being able to capitalize on feeding fish wherever you find them.
One of the easiest and most productive ways to catch fall smallmouth is to target them when they’re feeding on baitfish near the surface. This usually occurs on bright, sunny fall days when the schools of baitfish are drawn to the top of the water column to feed on phytoplankton. Start by traveling around the lake slowly looking for the feeding baitfish. Sometimes they will appear as small, raindrop-like, ripples on top of the water. Other times they will look more frantic, with small splashy rises and tiny silver flashes appearing just beneath the water’s surface.
Once you find a pod of baitfish, approach within casting distance and start casting small spinners or jerkbaits into the fringes of the school and retrieving them back to the boat at a leisurely pace. Smallmouth feeding on the baitfish will absolutely smash the lures, believing that they are panicking baitfish trying to escape.
When the bass are down feeding in deeper water, they can be a bit more challenging. You may have to travel to several different likely spots and do a bit of prospecting before you find the fish. This is where crankbaits come into play. Start casting the lures along the edges of drop-offs, across deep flats, sunken rockpiles, and off the points of islands. Fish methodically, retrieving your baits at different depths and at different speeds until you get a strike.
Once a bass or two bites, keep fishing around the general area until you’ve pinpointed exactly where the fish are holding and feeding. Then position your boat over the top of the smallmouth and switch up to either a heavy jig or a drop-shot soft-plastic rig and sink it down right on top of their heads. Let the lure hit the bottom and then begin jigging and twitching it with the rod tip. Bounce and thrash the lure along the bottom where it can stir up sand, clack against rocks, and basically cause enough commotion to trigger a hungry smallmouth to shoot over and inhale it. You’ll stack them up like cordwood.
A Nice Piece of Bass One of the best things about catching smallmouth in the fall is the size of the fish. During the fall, those gigantic smallmouth that are so reclusive during the summer seem to come out of their hiding places and feed with reckless abandon. This makes fall a true trophy season, a time of year to catch that big slab of a smallie you’ve always dreamed about yet never been able to find. So, as the bright days of summer begin to shorten and the end of smallmouth season seems to have arrived, keep your bass stuff on hand. The pursuit of a giant smallmouth is a worthy obsession—one you should stay after until the bitter, frosty end.
Feature image via Sam Lungren.